Damien Rock has the job a million riders would kill for, and that brings a wry smile to his face.
When trainer Charlie Lopresti takes out his first set in the mornings, Rock's assignment is to be aboard Wise Dan — the same Wise Dan regarded not just as the best turf miler in the nation but one of the best handicap performers in North America.
There are, as one would expect, numerous perks that come with being the exercise rider for the current top-ranked horse in the country, not the least of which include a trip to Santa Anita Park for the Breeders' Cup World Championships this week. Wise Dan is expected to be favored in the $2 million Mile.
But had Rock heeded the grim reports from some of his comrades last winter, he might not have ever swung his leg over the chestnut gelding, thus robbing the multiple Grade I winner of one of his best teachers.
To see the devastating moves Wise Dan produces in the mornings and in his races, it is hard to fathom any rider not wanting to feel his cannonball-like power through the reins themselves.
Yet the same power that has made the 5-year-old gelded son of Wiseman's Ferry a Horse of the Year candidate this season unnerved some of his past exercise riders. Previously regarded as one of the toughest horses in Lopresti's barn to gallop, Wise Dan prompted some not-so-glowing reviews because of his inclination to pull those trying to harness him into submission.
"A lot of friends of mine who had ridden him before all had horror stories about him, how he went three laps around the training track and took someone to the outside rail," said Rock, who began getting on Wise Dan in February. "For me, I've always been where I don't listen to what people tell me when they tell me horror stories about horses. I like to ride them and see how they are.
"I guess by not being intimidated by him, we had a bond from the beginning. When I first got on him, he was fresh and he did get strong with me, ... but the less I grabbed him and the more I trusted him, he started to become nicer to me instead of panicking."
By both commanding and giving respect to the stealth-like gelding, Rock quickly figured out less was more when it came to Wise Dan. Instead of trying to constantly contain his stride, Rock let Wise Dan roll when he wanted to, focusing more on getting his mount to relax on his own terms rather than by force.
"Damien gets along with (Wise Dan) probably better than anybody because he's not afraid of him," Lopresti said. "A horse like that you can't be afraid of them because then they lack confidence. He's got such a big engine and he's got such a big long stride that when they (other riders) tried to bottle him up and slow him down, it made him scared."
What the racing world has seen of Wise Dan this year is horse who has effortlessly rattled off three straight wins in the Grade II Fourstardave, Grade I Woodbine Mile and Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile. What they haven't seen are the hours of horsemanship Lopresti and his crew have put in to help the freakishly fluid mover become more at ease with his own frame.
At times before Wise Dan would even go to the track, Lopresti would have the chestnut gelding spend several minutes walking the shedrow — halting him, bending him, backing him up; making his muscles more lithe instead of tense.
"That was a turning point with him too," Lopresti said. "Sometimes we'd ride him for 45 minutes before he went out there ... getting him more supple so that way you could control him a little bit better.
"We would jog him around the shedrow and do what they call one-rein stops and pull his head around. Then I'd get on my pony sometimes and take him to the round pen with my flag and flag him on his off side because he was worse on his right side. A lot of those things went into it."
Though Wise Dan was already a Grade I winner before this season, having taken the Clark Handicap on the Churchill Downs dirt last November, his 2012 outings have been a tribute to his more mature demeanor.
In winning four of his five starts this year, with his only loss coming to Ron the Greek in the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill in June, Wise Dan has been able to settle at will in the early going.
When regular rider John Velazquez has had to push the button in the lane, the acceleration that has been Wise Dan's trademark has often manifested with even more ease.
Without question, Saturday's Breeders' Cup Mile looms as the toughest race of Wise Dan's 19-race career. That he is the picture of professionalism now is victory in itself for those who have witnessed his entire journey.
"I wake up every morning excited to come in," Rock said. "I've been riding for 15 years and I've never had that feeling first thing in the morning where I wake up to get on such an unbelievable horse."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Horseracing.bloginky.com.